Post 9 of the South East Asian Adventure series. View the rest of the series so far here.
On our first full day in Cambodia we visited Siem Reap’s two best-known tourist attractions: the magnificent Khmer temples of Angkor, and the trashy bars of Pub Street. Two attractions that couldn’t be much more different, but we loved them both.
We enjoyed a decent breakfast buffet at our hotel, Diamond D’Angkor, before heading out to the Angkor temple complex in a tuk tuk. We’d booked our driver for the whole day at reception the night before, for the exceedingly reasonable sum of $20. He met us outside the hotel and drove us to the ticket office so that we could buy our three-day passes ($40 each) before driving us into the park.
We’d agreed to do the ‘Big Three’ itinerary described to us at the hotel: Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. These are the three best-known parts of the Angkor complex and therefore the busiest with tourists, meaning we were accosted by local kids and teens selling guidebooks and guided tours as we arrived at each.
The smallest and easiest to navigate of the three, Ta Prohm is defined by being largely ruined and overgrown by nature. Giant trees erupt impossibly from the temple’s roofs, their monstrous roots spilling down the stone walls and into the piles of rubble below.
Yet even as plants have taken over, long corridors of dignified pillars and stone carvings of goddesses have been preserved. The result is a strange and beautiful sight that makes you feel as if you’re the first human to discover the temple after centuries of abandonment; although the other tourists scattered around taking selfies does shatter the illusion a little (to be fair, it’s hard to resist photographing yourself tucked into the roots of a tree).
Angkor Thom and Bayon Temple
Angkor Thom is not a temple, but the site of an ancient capital city of the Khmer Empire. All that’s left standing today is a number of temples and other monuments, spaced apart and separated by large patches of grass and trees. Finding your way between them would be almost impossible without the maps set at intervals around the area, and even with them we struggled to keep our bearings.
Our tuk tuk driver first dropped us off at the entrance of Angkor Thom’s most famous landmark, Bayon Temple. The reason for its fame? The fact that it incorporates hundreds of stone human heads. Its many towering pillars are piled up with faces on every side, meaning that almost wherever you are you’re being watched by several giant, unblinking eyes.
Ta Prohm and Bayon are perhaps equally strange as temples, but where the former conveys fragility and beauty the latter conveys strength and brutality.
Bayon’s many levels and repeated faces made it feel labyrinthine, and we quickly lost our bearings through being unable to tell which parts of the temple we’d seen already.
When we eventually found our way out and located a map, we worked our way around Angkor Thom’s other monuments. The highlight for me was the pyramid-like Baphuon Temple, which is reached via a grand elevated pathway between the trees.
Once inside you can climb some steep stone steps to the temple’s peak, from which you can get a spectacular view over the park.
A delicious lunch
Miraculously, we managed to find our driver again at the opposite end of Angkor Thom, near the Elephant Terrace. He took us for lunch at an outdoor café under a large canopy. I’ve no idea what was in it, but my fried yellow noodle dish was delicious and Steve’s beef Lok Lak tasted really good too.
The mango shake I ordered (akin to an iced smoothie) was so cold, and so delicious, that it felt like manna from the gods. My regret at not ordering another genuinely plagued me for the rest of the day, leading me to buy two more from other places that sadly weren’t as good.
The only downside to this lunch was the many wasps that plagued us throughout. We managed to get some brief relief from the onslaught by trapping all the wasps that we could inside Steve’s soda can, which they found irresistible.
Our next stop was Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s best known Khmer temple and subject of a million sunrise photos.
The thing is, following the amazing structures we’d seen already, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. Compared with the whimsical Ta Prohm and the domineering Bayon, Angkor Wat came across as large and attractive but otherwise quite uninteresting. Though in retrospect, my disinterest might have had something to do with my constitution at that point – I felt so unbearably hot and exhausted that I wanted nothing more than to go and sit in a freezer.
We walked the long way in, climbed the long stack of stairs to the central shrine, and peered in at the various Buddhas hiding there. I really empathised with the one that was sleeping. The windows provided fantastic views over the ground floor of Angkor Wat and to the dense green forest beyond.
An attempt at sunset
Our final stop of the day was Phnom Bakheng, which our driver had recommended for sunset. It was quite a trek up to the temple, and then we had to climb some rather precipitous stairs. Once at the top, we settled down for the show amid a sizable crowd. It was a treat to spot a group of orange-robed monks also here to take in the view.
Unfortunately, after waiting for around an hour, we realised that it was going to be too cloudy to see much. The security guard-like figures told us there’d be no sunset, and started fielding us all back down.
We’d been looking forward to our Pub Street crawl almost as much as our temple tour. The street is impossible to miss: in among several dusty, ramshackle streets it beams like a disco light.
Its name is announced in neon signs strung above, while throbbing music and clamouring voices spill out of its edges. Even the carts of street vendors along here have their own music and light systems.
While surrounding streets are populated mostly by locals, this single street is filled with people from overseas – most of them Caucasian and jabbering away in English. We were handed flyers promoting backpacker pub crawls by a mixture of Australians and Americans.
Faced with almost too much choice, we chose our first bar based on where the beer was cheapest. This was the first bar on the left of the street, where a pint was just 25 cents during Happy Hour! We sat at a high table outside and a waitress brought us our beer, which was nondescript but very drinkable.
Directly opposite was a large, open-sided bar with a flashing dance floor. The music booming out of it was largely pop singles from the 90s. As we watched a drunken hen party throw shapes to Wannabe by the Spice Girls, it felt like we’d found a wormhole back into Britain 20 years ago.
Continuing down the street, stopping to look at menus, we dropped into another very open bar made cosy with cushions and twee décor. We ordered two Khmer curries that were alright, but not memorable.
Next we sought out the bar doing the cheapest cocktails – Khmer Kitchen – and I had a delicious Long Island Iced Tea costing just $1.75. When I’d finished with it, a giant moth swooped in to finish off the dregs.
Our final stop was Angkor What?, a bar recommended to me by a friend. The drinks are more expensive here, but there’s also a brilliant gimmick: customers are encouraged to write on everything, from the walls to the tables, meaning the whole place is plastered in people’s scrawlings.
We ordered spirit and mixers and got to work with a black marker, squeezing our handiwork into the few free spots in our vicinity. I even managed some guerrilla advertising for this blog!
We walked back to our hotel nicely sozzled, looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure: venturing far outside of SIem Reap to explore the ruined jungle temple of Beng Melea.